June 20, 2009

DVD Review: Riff Trax - Night of the Living Dead

I am sure the vast majority of you already have this movie in one form or another. There have been countless releases over the years, helped by a copyright snafu when the film was originally released. However, as familiar as we all are with the film, I am sure that none of you have seen it quite this way. Now, it has been some time since the Satellite of Love has been lost to deep space, or crashed to Earth, or whatever happened to it. In the years since the end of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mike Nelson has sought other avenues to deliver his comedically scathing commentaries of films that deserve a good skewering. One of those avenues is Riff Trax, where Nelson teams with his MST3K buddies, Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo) an Bill Corbett (Crow). Where the were just selling downloadable commentaries, they are now releasing DVD's with the tracks on them. This Night of the Living Dead just so happens to be one of those releases.

It is interesting, as it was not that long ago this same trio of mirth makers tried releasing similar films as The Film Crew. I remember this as I had reviewed there take on the Rue McClanahan classic, Hollywood After Dark. That was quite the experience. I am guessing the experiment did not go over well as those releases dried up rather quickly. I guess it is a good thing that they have abandoned that line in favor of leveraging their more productive time on their primary venture.

In any case, listening to this track with this movie turned out to be a vastly different experience. I have not listened to much of these comedic commentaries since the end of MST3K. I was curious to see how they would be with a film that is widely regarded as a classic and on of the most influential horror films ever made, as opposed to the low end of the totem pole titles they usually set their sights on.

To give the few uninitiated a quick background on the film, it is about zombies and they attack people with flesh on their minds. That's about it! I kid, I kid. The film was released back in 1968 and promptly gave the horror genre a shot in the arm. Director/co-writer George Romero and writer John Russo reinvented the zombie. The film is tense, scary, and generally well-acted. It takes its heroes, puts them inside a house and forces them into a two-sided fight, the zombies outside, themselves inside.

As funny as these guys can be, they do not quite seem to be on their game. Often the jokes fall flat, feel forced, or just sound scripted. What makes their good work sparkle is when it sounds conversational, off-the-cuff and actually clever. Yes, they did make me chuckle a few times, but by and large I feel I might be able to do better myself. I really wanted to like the track, but I suspect that it was doomed to fail.

Why was it doomed to fail? In my estimation, taking on a beloved movie is a much more difficult task than taking aim on a stinker. For one thing, you better make sure your jokes are funny, and these guys really didn't do it. None of the comments, even the ones I chuckled at, were all that memorable, as it stands I cannot remember any of them. Another thing that worked against them, and I think this is the biggest thing, is the fact that this is, indeed, a classic.

Night of the Living Dead is a truly scary film, it is competently made, well written, and easy to get wrapped up in. From the moment Johnny and Barbara arrive at the cemetery it is hard not to get involved with them. The immortal line "They're coming to get you, Barbara" is one recognized by just about everyone, and once they have you, they have you. I found myself, on more than one occasion, getting into the movie and getting annoyed by the commentary. Not good.

Audio/Video. The movie is presented in its original fullscreen aspect ratio and for the most part looks decent. It is at least as good as the countless public domain versions that have been around there. There are moments where it seems a little bit choppy, but overall not bad. Audio is about the same, not great, but it definitely does the trick. The commentary track is just fine, good volume and clarity.

Extras. Nothing, that is unless you count the ability to watch the film without the commentary. Oh yeah, you also get a coupon for a free download of their commentary for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Bottomline. The movie is an outright classic. Anyone who calls themselves a horror fan must have this film in their collection, it just doesn't have to be this version.

Mildly Recommended (it has its moments).


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